Louisiana lawmakers have entered the waning days of their special session on the coronavirus pandemic with few decisions made on responding to the outbreak or their dispute with Gov. John Bel Edwards about his approach.
The majority-Republican House and Senate have sent the Democratic governor a handful of bills on relatively minor issues — and added $20 million-plus in pet projects to the budget in a throwback to spending plans crafted years ago when Louisiana was flush with cash, rather than struggling through a pandemic.
They haven’t reached any agreements on how to curb the governor’s emergency authority. They haven’t found a way to refill Louisiana’s unemployment trust fund, which was bankrupted by the surge in unemployment. And they haven’t rolled back any of Edwards’ coronavirus restrictions on businesses and activities, one of the main reasons they came back to Baton Rouge.
Edwards, of course, isn’t displeased that only a few bills have reached his desk, since he has resisted legislative efforts to take away his emergency authority, second-guess his decisions or give lawmakers more oversight.
“I never thought this particular session was warranted,” the governor said Thursday. “The vast majority of instruments that I have seen and heard debated aren’t things that I would ever acquiesce to … It’s kind of sad that we’re here.”
To be clear, lawmakers still have time to do those things they said they called themselves into the monthlong session to achieve. The session must end Oct. 27, but the House and Senate seem sharply at odds over what legislation they believe is constitutionally sound and what path they want to take. Negotiations are continuing.
As if underscoring the depth of the disagreement, Haughton Republican Rep. Dodie Horton took to the House floor before lawmakers left for the weekend to “challenge the senators” to vote on legislation that would revoke all of Edwards’ coronavirus restrictions until December.
“Send it back and let us vote so we can set our people free,” Horton said.
Senators have stalled the legislation, and they didn’t publicly respond to Horton’s chastisement before heading home for the weekend.
As they return Monday, lawmakers have nine days to accomplish their stated goals for the special session. And it remains uncertain whether they’ll pass a flurry of bills in the final days or end up in stalemate over the largest agenda items and head home with some pork projects for favored districts and little else.
Those projects — dozens of line items added to a budget bill, largely behind closed doors and with no public vetting process — drew complaints from some lawmakers.
Republican and Democratic rank-and-file House members questioned the secretive process by legislative leaders and suggested the spending on sports complexes, a lighthouse, municipal roadwork and local government agencies was inappropriate. Many of the local projects appear to be in or near the districts of legislative leaders. Most of the items provide little information about how money will be spent.
“I didn’t think this is what we came down here to do,” said Rep. Kenny Cox, a Natchitoches Democrat.
Rep. Thomas Pressly, a Shreveport Republican, questioned why the “special interest projects” were priorities, though he later voted for the budget bill. Rep. Nicholas Muscarello, a Hammond Republican, also voted for the measure even after he suggested the money could be better spent trying to shore up the drained unemployment trust fund, as the state is borrowing money to pay jobless benefits.
The budget bill sent to the governor did include $85 million for the unemployment fund — though that’s far short of the wholesale fix needed to replenish the account.
While some lawmakers complained, the pet projects drew deeper condemnation from one of Louisiana’s government watchdog groups, the nonpartisan Public Affairs Research Council, which issued a scathing statement calling the budget bill “bad fiscal management of scarce state dollars” and the “regrettable revival of a wily political system based on petty favors.”
“While some of the items are ostensibly for local jurisdictions’ ‘coronavirus expenses,’ the list is essentially a resurrection of the old ‘slush funds’ that once served political favors at the expense of more pressing needs of the state,” the organization said. “We thought that time had passed, but apparently the new breed of legislators is not so new after all.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: Melinda Deslatte has covered Louisiana politics for The Associated Press since 2000. Follow her at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte.